September 18, 2020

Systems thinking

Official_portrait_of_Chi_Onwurah_crop_3.jpgThere's a TV ad currently running on MSNBC that touts the services of a company that makes custom T-shirts to help campaigns raise funds for causes such as climate change.

Pause. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a cotton T-shirt - water that, the Virtual Water project would argue, is virtually exported from cotton-growing nations to those earnest climate change activists. Plus other environmental damage relating to cotton; see also the recent paper tracking the pollution impact of denim microfibers. So the person buying the T-shirt may be doing a good thing on the local level by supporting climate change activism while simultaneously exacerbating the climate change they're trying to oppose.

The same sort of issue arose this week at the UK Internet Governance Forum with respect to what the MP and engineer Chi Onwurah (Labour-Newcastle upon Tyne Central) elegantly called "data chaos" - that is, the confusing array of choices and manipulations we're living in. Modern technology design has done a very good job of isolating each of us into a tiny silo, in which we attempt to make the best decisions for ourselves and our data without any real understanding of the wider impact on wider society.

UCL researcher Michael Veale expanded on this idea: "We have amazing privacy technologies, but what we want to control is the use of technologies to program and change entire populations." Veale was participating in a panel on building a "digital identity layer" - that is, a digital identity infrastructure to enable securely authenticated interactions on the Internet. So if we focus on confidentiality we miss the danger we're creating in allowing an entire country to rely on intermediaries whose interests are not ours but whose actions could - for example - cause huge populations to self-isolate during a pandemic. It is incredibly hard just to get a half-dozen club tennis players to move from WhatsApp to something independent of Facebook. At the population level, lock-in is far worse.

Third and most telling example. Last weekend, at the 52nd annual conference of the Cybernetics Society, Kate Cooper, from the Birmingham Food Council, made a similar point when, after her really quite scary talk, she was asked whether we could help improve food security if those of us who have space started growing vegetables in our gardens. The short answer: no. "It's subsistence farming," she said, going on to add that although growing your own food helps you understand your own relationship with food and where it comes from and can be very satisfying to do, it does nothing at all to help you gain a greater understanding of the food system and the challenges of keeping it secure. This is - or could be - another of Yes, Minister's irregular verbs: I choose not to eat potato chips; you very occasionally eat responsibly-sourced organic potato chips; potato chips account for 6% of Britain's annual crop of potatoes. This was Cooper's question: is that a good use of the land, water, and other resources? Growing potatoes in your front garden will not lead you to this question.

Cybernetics was new to me two years ago, when I was invited to speak at the 50th anniversary conference. I had a vague idea it had something to do with Isaac Asimov's robots. In its definition, Wikipedia cites MIT scientific Norbert Weiner in 1948: "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine". So it *could* be a robot. Trust Asimov.

Attending the 2018 event, followed by this year's, which was shared with the American Society for Cybernetics, showed cybernetics up as a slippery transdiscipline. The joint 2020 event veered from a case study of IBM to choreography, taking in subjects like the NHS Digital Academy, design, family therapy, social change, and the climate emergency along the way. Cooper, who seemed as uncertain as I was two years ago whether her work really had anything to do with cybernetics, fit right in.

The experience has led me to think of cybernetics as a little like Bayes' Theorem as portrayed in Sharon Bertsch McGrayne's book The Theory That Would Not Die. As she tells the story, for two and a half centuries after its invention, select mathematicians kept the idea alive but rarely dared to endorse it publicly - and today it's everywhere. The cybernetics community feels like this, too: a group who are nurturing an overlooked, poorly understood-by-the-wider-world, but essential field waiting for the rest of us to understand its power.

For a newcomer, getting oriented is hard; some of the discussion seems abstract enough to belong in a philosophy department. Other aspects - such as Ray Ison's description of his new book, The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking, smacks of self-help, especially when he describes it: "The contention of the book is that systems thinking in practice provides the means to understand and fundamentally alter the systems governing our lives."

At this stage, however, with the rolling waves of crises hitting our societies (which Ison helpfully summed up in an apt cartoon), if this is cybernetics, it sounds like exactly what we need. "Why," asked the artist Vanilla Beer, whose father was the cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, "is something so useful unused?" Beats me.

Illustrations: Chi Onwurah (official portrait, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

September 11, 2020


sfo-fires-hasbrouck.jpegA new complaint surfaced on Twitter this week. Anthony Ryan may have captured it best: "In San Francisco everyone is trying unsuccessfully to capture the hellish pall that we're waking up to this morning but our phone cameras desperately want everything to be normal." california-fires-sffdpio.jpegIn other words: as in these pictures, the wildfires have turned the Bay Area sky dark orange ("like dusk on Mars," says one friend), but people attempting to capture it on their phone cameras are finding that the automated white balance correction algorithms recalibrate the color to wash out the orange in favor of grey daylight.

At least that's something the computer is actually doing, even if it's counter-productive. Also this week, the Guardian ran an editorial that it boasted had been "entirely" written by OpenAI's language generator, GPT-3. Here's what they mean by "written" and "entirely": the AI was given a word length, a theme, and the introduction, from which it produced eight unique essays, which the Guardian editors chopped up and pieced together into a single essay, which they then edited in the usual way, cutting lines and rearranging paragraphs as they saw fit. Trust me, human writers don't get to submit eight versions of anything; we'd be fired when the first one failed. But even if we did, editing, as any professional writer will tell you, is the most important part of writing anything. As I commented on Twitter, the whole thing sounds like a celebrity airily claiming she's written her new book herself, with "just some help with the organizing". I'd advise that celebrity (name withheld) to have a fire extinguisher ready for when her ghostwriter reads that and thinks of all the weeks they spent desperately rearranging giant piles of rambling tape transcripts into a (hopefully) compelling story.

The Twitter discussion of this little foray into "AI" briefly touched on copyright. It seems to me hard to argue that the AI is the author given the editors' recombination of its eight separately-generated pieces (which likely took longer than if one of them had simply written the piece). Perhaps you could say - if you're willing to overlook the humans who created, coded, and trained the AI - that the AI is the author of the eight pieces that became raw material for the essay. As things are, however, it seems clear that the Guardian is the copyright owner, just as it would be if the piece had been wholly staff-written (by humans).

Meanwhile, the fallout from Max Schrems' latest win continues to develop. The Irish Data Protection Authority has already issued a preliminary order to suspend data transfers to the US; Facebook is appealing. The Swiss data protection authority has issued a notice that the Swiss-US Privacy Shield is also void. During a September 3 hearing before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs, MEP Sophie in't Veld said that by bringing the issue to the courts Schrems is doing the job data protection authorities should be doing themselves. All agreed that a workable - but this time "Schrems-proof" - solution must be found to the fundamental problem, which Gwendolyn Delbos-Corfield summed up as "how to make trade with a country that has decided to put mass surveillance as a rule in part of its business world". In't Veld appeared to sum up the entire group's feelings when she said, "There must be no Schrems III."

Of course we all knew that the UK was going to get caught in the middle between being able to trade with the EU, which requires a compatible data protection regime (either the continuation of the EU's GDPR or a regime that is ruled equal), and the US, which wants data to be free-flowing and which has been trying to use trade agreements to undermine the spread of data protection laws around the world (latest newcomer: Brazil). What I hadn't quite focused on (although it's been known for a while) is that, just like the US surveillance system, the UK's own surveillance regime could disqualify it from the adequacy ruling it needs to allow data to go on flowing. When the UK was an EU member state, this didn't arise as an issue because EU data protection law permits member states to claim exceptions for national security. Now that the UK is out, that exception no longer applies. It was a perk of being in the club.

Finally, the US Senate, not content with blocking literally hundreds of bills passed by the House of Reprsentatives over the last few years, has followed up July's antitrust hearings with the GAFA CEOs with a bill that's apparently intended to answer Republican complaints that conservative voices are being silenced on social media. This is, as Eric Goldman points out in disgust one of several dozen bits of legislation intended to modify various pieces of S230 or scrap it altogether. On Twitter, Tarleton Gillespie analyzes the silliness of this latest entrant into the fray. While modifying S230 is probably not the way to go about it, right now curbing online misinformation seems like a necessary move - especially since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated outright that Facebook won't remove anti-vaccine posts. Even in a pandemic.

Illustrations: The San Francisco sky on Wednesday ("full sun, no clouds, only smoke"), by Edward Hasbrouck; accurate color comparison from the San Francisco Fire Department.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.